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  • Robert Farago

The Pursuit of Attention

Love me!

A friend of mine doesn’t read or post on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube – any app that tells the world who he is (Eagle Scout), what he does (vertical farming) or what he thinks (he might as well wear a tin foil hat). As Little Feat’s song Easy to Slip asks…

Does he really exist at all? Well now he does. Now that I’ve told you who he is, here, online.

My Massachusetts homie’s happy living off the social media grid. Problem: his new vertical horticulture biz depends on its online identity. Strike that. It depends on his online identity.

To deny that our economy is powered by the cult of personality is like saying you don’t know who Jeff Bezos is. Or that influencers aren’t influential. Which they bloody well are.

One of the Kardashians - famous for being famous - is worth more than a billion dollars. The K-clan’s net worth rivals Guatemala’s GNP.

There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of online influencers telling surfers how to live. Where to vacation. What to drive, wear, eat, drink and watch.

Their followers follow their lead, fueling our increasingly frenetic consumer society.

Celebrity culture is nothing new. What’s changed: its democratization.

Social media apps offer all and sundry a chance, indeed the obligation, to influence. To garner attention. To “be somebody,” both home and away. (Not to go all Kylie on you.)

Most alluringly, away.

Instagram Reels, YouTube shorts and TikTok are rightly perceived as latter day lottery tickets to a national and international audience. They offer the average person the chance to hit it big by “going viral.” With all the fame and fortune that celebrity delivers.

This is the digital manifestation of the normal human pursuit of attention, gone wild. Toxic? That too.

Don’t get me wrong. Before social media, humans were no less concerned about how they were perceived - by the people in their immediate circle. The route to attention was limited by geography and technology and, thus, shaped by local social norms.

People without a shot at national celebrity were lauded by their local community for sports and academic excellence, political or business acumen, friendship, a convivial personality, religious leadership and/or good works. Or vilified (another form of attention) for their failure to live up to their community’s standards.

This is less true now than it’s ever been. With the rise of social media, an individual’s value is based on numbers. The more “followers” you have, the more people paying attention to you, the more worthy you are. No matter who these online admirers and acolytes are, or where they live.

As I said, with social media, the sky’s the limit. The possibility of achieving large scale recognition haunts our collective psyche, raising expectations even as it diminishes self-esteem – for failure to be seen by the right people, the right number of people.

Is it any wonder that posters - and by that I mean everyone - aspire to be seen “living their best life” - as opposed to fulfilling the old Army recruitment come-on “be all that you can be”? An enticement that contained a reassuring acknowledgement of personal limitations.

My friend couldn’t give a shit about gathering online “likes” from people he doesn’t know face-to-face. He wants his business to succeed on its own merits, not because of a carefully-crafted online public persona. Which, for him, doesn’t exist.

Despite his reticence, that’s the way it will go down. His customers will focus on him - his winning smile, honesty, integrity, creativity and sense of humor - as much as his produce. They will post photos and videos of their encounter with him. Take selfies with him.

Why? Because it will make them seem important. Look! I discovered/met/hung out with the guy who’s revolutionizing farming. That’s far more more click-worthy than showing off a fresh bunch of hydroponically-grown organic cinnamon basil.

I’d like to believe that this is one of those pendulum deals. That our relentless pursuit of online attention will oscillate in the opposite direction and return to something more… real. I’d also like to believe I’m not susceptible to the lure of attention-seeking social media mania. Neither is true.

As AI increases our ability to mold our online image to better satisfy our narcissistic tendencies, as we perpetuate our idealized self-image with unprecedented efficiency, we’re heading to a world where the words “personal relationship” are losing their meaning.

In the face of this online onslaught, there’s only one way to recapture our off-line humanity: spend more time with each other in the real world. Without memorializing every moment on social media.

If only we could grow that desire in my friend’s climate-controlled intermodal containers.

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